An alleged international sex trafficking and money laundering ring that operated brothels out of apartments in Kirkland and Bellevue and six people, including three from Bellevue, face federal charges, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The group allegedly operated a web of apartments in four states, using them as brothels to traffic women living here illegally, and forcing them to work as sex workers to repay debts as high as $60,000, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The federal prosecutors say that the women's services, advertised as Asian "massage services" were advertised in backpage.com, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office press release.
Kirkland Police received a tip regarding a Kirkland address, which led to the investigation and involvement of Homeland Security Investigations, said Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Six people who allegedly used a Kirkland apartment in a major sex trafficking and money laundering ring have been indicted on federal charges following an undercover investigation that included Kirkland Police, the Bellevue Police, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Attorney's Office says. The investigation resulted from a tip by a community member, according to a press release issued today.
The six charged, including three Bellevue residents, were indicted last week for conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution, conspiracy to use a communications facility to promote prostitution and conspiracy to engage in money laundering, said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan in a press release.
The indictment was returned after a tip led to an undercover investigation involving the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Kirkland Police Department, the Bellevue Police Department, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
The conspirators advertised Asian women for "massage services" on backpage.com, and leased apartments in Bellevue and Kirkland, Scottsdale, Arizona, Chicago, Illinois, and Falls Church/Tysons Corner, Virginia, the release said. Some of the defendants will appear in U.S. District Court in Seattle at 2:30 p.m. today.
“These defendants exploited vulnerable women immigrants to enrich themselves,” said Durkan in the release. “We will work with our partners to stop this exploitation. I commend the member of our community who alerted law enforcement. I also applaud the good work of the King County Sheriff’s Office, and the Bellevue and Kirkland Police Departments for their work with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations on this case.”
According to the indictment and other records filed in the case, law enforcement began investigating reports of apparent prostitution activity at a Kirkland apartment complex. The investigation revealed that six people were working together running a prostitution business utilizing apartments they rented in four different states, and ads placed on backpage.com. Many of the women who provided sexual services were in the U.S. illegally, having overstayed their visas. The women owed debts of as much as $60,000 to the leader of the prostitution ring, for providing them with the employment opportunities in the U.S. Most of the women were recruited in Thailand and came to the U.S. knowing they would be sex workers to pay off their debt. The conspirators used multiple cell phones to place the ads, and one of the conspirators worked as the “operator,” lining up appointments for the women. Those indicted today include:
- UNRUEAN ABOULAFIA, 34, of Bellevue, is the leader of the scheme. A Thai national, she was in the U.S. illegally. She allegedly recruited the women from Thailand, and advertised their services on backpage.com. The women paid her their smuggling debt.
- THANYATHORN MOHR, 35, of Bellevue is a Thai National who was legally in the U.S. She allegedly was the “operator” for the women, responding to the calls generated by the backpage.com ads, scheduling appointments and directing clients to the apartments.
- JEFF CHU, 48, a U.S. citizen living in Bellevue, allegedly leased various apartments for the group in Bellevue and in Illinois, in both his name and the name of his ex-wife. He collected some of the proceeds for the conspiracy and laundered the money through various bank accounts.
- XINPING ZHANG, 39, a Chinese National legally in the U.S. and CHU’s ex-wife. She allegedly rented various apartments for the conspirators, collected money and laundered funds.
- EDWARD FLANIGAN, 57 of Federal Way, Washington, allegedly rented apartments for the prostitution activities in Washington and Arizona.
- STEVEN ABOULAFIA, 59, a U.S. Citizen of Henderson, Nevada, and the ex-husband of the ring leader, allegedly leased apartments in Washington and Virginia and collected prostitution proceeds.
“This case is more than prostitution, money laundering, and conspiracy. It is about human trafficking,” said King County Sheriff John Urquhart. “The Sheriff’s Office is committed to fighting human trafficking and holding responsible those who engage in this despicable activity.”
“The Bellevue Police Department is committed to proactively targeting all forms of human trafficking with our law enforcement partners on all levels (local, county, state, and federal). Bellevue police condemns the financial and physical exploitation of these victims and the suspects who manage these operations,” said Bellevue Police Investigations Captain Steve Lynch.
Conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution and conspiracy to use a communications facility to promote prostitution are each punishable by up to five years in prison, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering is punishable by up to twenty years in prison.
The case is being investigated by the King County Sheriff’s Office; HSI Seattle, Chicago, and Washington, DC; the Bellevue Police Department; and the Kirkland Police Department, and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Ye-Ting Woo.
--Information from the U.S. Attorney's Office